Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Daughter of Quiet

In my last post I talked about a specific kind of quiet: an internally-generated moment of repose which can be triggered in myriad ways. But I didn't cover WHY that kind of quiet is important and what's born out of it. First, a bit of background:

Being a highly social species, most of us homo sapiens want to feel we belong to one or more communities, and the communities we participate in to get that sense of belonging are usually composed of other people - biological or extended family, neighborhoods, churches, political groups, schools and so forth. These interconnections with one or more other humans are satisfying and rich - also (sometimes) difficult, frustrating, puzzling and occasionally just plain tiring. The effort they take isn't a bad thing: it can be compared to the effort of working your muscles hard at the gym, after which your body needs to restore itself to complete the process of getting better at doing what you ask of it. Similarly, we work hard at forging the necessary bonds in human relationships, creating a lot of internal noise in the process - What does he think of me? Why did she just say that? Did I hurt his feelings? I like her but I can't stand him... Our chattering minds and unsettled hearts need an occasional rest, to get better at doing what we ask of them.

The self-generated quiet I wrote of earlier takes us to a place where we can rest mind and heart for a moment, unencumbered by the "noise" of striving to achieve some goal. And from that place of quiet emerges - possibly, sometimes, no guarantees in this life - a different kind of relationship and belonging from that which we experience with other people: a connection with the immensity of existence. Virtually every religion and wisdom tradition, whether Western, Eastern or indigenous, has practices that claim to induce this transcendent experience, but many of us have shied away from those practices because we feel they're associated with belief systems or dogma we can't subscribe to. Uh-uh; I don't buy it. The belief system, the dogma, is only a model some people use to explain to themselves a mystery that is essentially beyond words. The experience of inner quiet is the doorway into the mystery (sometimes open, sometimes shut). The practice is the bicycle - or maybe the unicycle - we ride through the door (no helmets needed or allowed).

So what DOES happen in that instant of quiet and connection? I can only speak to my own experience, but perhaps it will serve. Let's go back to my example of brushing my hand over that large rock every day when I walk at the mall (yes, darn it, you'll have to read the previous post). When I engage in that practice, here's what it seems like to me - in a kind of analytical "slow motion" deconstruction of an instantaneous event: The first part of the encounter is sensory. I respond to the rock visually as I approach - see the beauty in its solid presence, recognize its familiar, varicolored markings, its irregular shape, the flecks of mica that sparkle in the overhead light. I greet the rock as I come near (non-verbally, so as not to startle other mall walkers who don't habitually talk to rocks). I brush my hand over it as I pass. Touching its sandpapery, hard surface, I get a sense of its age and the deep roots of stone out of which it was pried. It feels patient. I take a deep breath.

The second phase of the encounter is entirely - spiritual? Psychological? Emotional? (Ah, well, often all those roads lead to the same place.)  At the risk of sounding painfully New Age-ish, I believe that every time I touch that rock I reaffirm what I can only call a relationship - better yet, a kinship - with it. Without any intellectual effort, in a flash of perception, I know that my existence and the existence of the rock are both contained within and nurtured by the life of the earth. And the existence of the earth is contained within and nurtured by - indeed, was born from - the heat and heart of stars in an unimaginably immense universe. In this moment, I feel very much smaller, but my life feels very big. And very connected. To everything. Often I bring this awareness of participating in the immensity of things back to my "ordinary" day. It's great for perspective when being human gets tough.

The most wondrous part of this capability, I think, is that we can enter into this relationship with the mystery of existence through that most corporeal of pathways: our senses. By seeing, touching, listening, smelling and/or tasting - by paying rapt attention to the world - we transcend the limitations of this package of skin, bones and neural synapses that each of us calls "me."  We belong to the entire universe.

Try it. Try really seeing light dancing on the river's surface or the spider building its web. Try really hearing a birdsong or the wind roaring through treetops. Taste your food. Touch the bark of a tree. Smell the night air. Watch the stars. Let them tell you what's really going on. And find your place in the interconnected world of what Taoism calls "the ten thousand things" - that is, all of existence, from sawgrass to supernovas.

Every time the daughter of quiet is born, catch her in your arms and rock her as if she were your own. She is.

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